Early in his literary career, Robert Lowell researched the life of the eminent eighteenth century American preacher Jonathan Edwards with the aim of writing his biography. He never wrote the life, but two of his best-known poems derive from this purported venture. “Mr. Edwards and the Spider” is a poem of five nine-line stanzas that fuses several experiences of the Northampton, Massachusetts, minister having to do with spiders, either literally or metaphorically. Lowell adopts the voice of Edwards in meditation.
The first stanza summarizes the content of a remarkable letter that Edwards wrote, probably at the age of ten or eleven, to an English correspondent of his father. In it, he recorded his observations of the habits of flying spiders and drew some unusually mature inferences, for example, that since their journeys were always seaward, the spiders were in effect seeking their own death. Written in a decidedly scientific spirit, the letter discloses a gifted naturalist in the making.
In his second stanza, Lowell shifts his attention to Edwards’s most famous (though hardly most representative) work, the sermon that he delivered as a guest preacher in Enfield, Connecticut, at the height of the religious revival called “The Great Awakening” in 1741. “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” compares the individual members of that congregation to “a loathsome spider” that God dangles over hell. In a dramatic presentation of the intransigent Calvinist version of Original Sin, Edwards assured his listeners that God would be justified in dropping them into hell at any moment. “What are we,” Lowell asks, after Edwards, “in the hands of the great God?”
Next, Lowell introduces the black widow, whose bite is poisonous and can be deadly, and reiterates the appropriateness of God’s wrath. In the fourth stanza, the poet invents an incident in which Edwards, as a small boy, sees a spider being cast into fire and offering little resistance to it. The final stanza draws in Josiah Hawley, an uncle of Jonathan Edwards, who early in the Great Awakening committed suicide by cutting his own throat. Here and in another poem, “After the Surprising Conversions,” Lowell makes use of letters Edwards had written to Benjamin Colman, a fellow minister in Boston, describing Hawley as having fallen into “a deep melancholy, a distemper that the family are very prone to,” and attributing his death to the Satanic incursion that the Great Awakening was designed to combat. A few days after the bloody incident, Edwards saw evidence of “a considerable revival of religion,” but he later reported to Colman that the temptation to suicide was spreading alarmingly among the townspeople.
Finally, the black widow is death itself, “infinite” and “eternal.” To Edwards and no doubt to Hawley, death could be the prelude to an everlasting damnation, although Lowell couches his speaker’s concluding words in terms ambiguous enough to accommodate the possibility of different interpretations by successive readers.
Lowell works the meditation into an elaborate stanza in an iambic meter ranging from three to six poetic feet long with a demanding rhyme scheme of abbacccdd. Having set this restrictive and regularly recurring form for himself, the poet runs the speaking voice across it in such a way as to create felicitous variations of rhythm, pace, and emphasis.
About half the lines as well as the transition between two of the stanzas show enjambment, and half the sentences begin within lines. There is great variety, also, in the length, arrangement, and function of the sentences. The first stanza, for example, is composed of two descriptive sentences of twenty-seven and thirty-five words, while the hexameter...
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line at the end of the second stanza consists of two balanced questions: “How will the hands be strong? How will the heart endure?” Longer, often-periodic sentences combine with abrupt questions such as these and snappy assertions such as the concluding “This is the Black Widow, death” to give the impression of an agile mind at work.
In this and other early poems, Lowell shared the practice of poets such as Dylan Thomas and Marianne Moore, contrivers of intricate patterns who muted the rhymes and disguised the rhythmic schemes, thus artfully concealing art. The sound effects of this poem enhance the movement of the meditating mind without calling attention to themselves—which is why the analysis of such poems must do so.
“Mr. Edwards and the Spider” also illustrates Lowell’s penchant for merging seemingly disparate elements into a surprising unity. Edwards’s youthful admiration for flying spiders and his heavy-handed appropriation of them twenty-five years later, playing as it does on his congregation’s theologically induced loathing of spiders for the sake of frightening them into the straight and narrow path, reveal two totally different aspects of a many-sided man. The modern reader, coming upon these two works of Edwards, are likely to lament the disappearance of the budding naturalist into the fire-and-brimstone preacher, but Lowell teases them imagistically into co-existence in this poem, adding also the poisonous black widow. Edwards’s listeners would naturally tend to associate this type of spider with the Devil. In fact, Edwards’s fellow Massachusetts minister Edward Taylor (who ended his long pastorate in Westfield about the time Edwards began his in nearby Northampton) had portrayed “Hell’s spider” memorably in a poem and had doubtless also done so in his sermons. By amalgamating these spiders, Lowell suggests the complexities and contradictions of Edwards’s character in one relatively short poem.
Lowell accomplishes this feat by collapsing time in the consciousness of his speaker. As a result, he could combine several elements, one of which is the early keen interest in nature’s ways that surely continued in the preacher. Another is Edwards’s painful recollection of an unbalanced parishioner harried by religious emotion into a desperate act. Lowell also infuses his subject’s powerful rhetorical gift and, in acknowledgment of Edwards’s philosophical bent, his predisposition to meditate on death. The result of Lowell’s compression is no doubt a “Lowellized” Edwards but nevertheless a more comprehensive portrait of the man than one is likely to glean from any one of his surviving works.
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